How to Be a Proactive New Employee
Take charge of your own onboarding experience and be successful faster
Over the last 17 years I have had eight new jobs in five states and one other country.
I have a lot of experience being the new employee. My rapid job changes have been the result of cascading life changes. All of those transitions were difficult. Restarting life in a new place takes a lot of energy. Yet because I have been thrown into new jobs over and over again, I have had the opportunity to learn exactly how to move into a new role quickly and effectively.
What does that mean? It means that instead of relying on my new workplace to introduce and integrate me well, I have learned to take charge of my own onboarding.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management,
New employee onboarding is the process of integrating a new employee with a company and its culture, as well as getting a new hire the tools and information needed to become a productive member of the team.
Good onboarding is essential. Thankfully I have come to realize that I am not completely at the mercy of my employer in that regard. If they have planned some formal training for me, awesome. However, if there are holes in their process, I have developed my own methods of self-onboarding to make sure the transition goes more smoothly and I rapidly acclimate to my new job.
If you are proactive about managing your own onboarding experience, you’ll have a better experience yourself, but you’ll also be able to make contributions to your new team more quickly — and be recognized for it.
Also, for convenience, here is a clickable table of contents. (The links below work if you’re reading in a browser, but not if you’re reading in the app.)
Be honest about what you know ... and ask for what you need
Create some early wins
Introductions: It's not about you meeting people, it's about everyone else meeting you
Get a buddy
Three Focus Areas
In a Harvard Business Review article, Ron Carucci discusses the importance of onboarding employees if you want them to stick around. He sees the onboarding process as having three key areas: organizational, technical, and social.
In my experience as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, I’ve found that the most effective organizations onboard new hires for the duration of their first year — their most vulnerable period — and focus on three key dimensions: the organizational, the technical, and the social. By using this integrated approach, they enable their employees to stay, and to thrive.
I think this is a helpful way to approach the onboarding experience. If the most effective organizations focus on these three areas, then proactive new employees should do the same.
Anticipate the first day details
You know that feeling you have the night before you start a new job? You know there are going to be a million boxes to tick the next day. You don’t want to forget something important.
If your new employer hasn’t already sent you an onboarding checklist, you can make your own.
There are certain things I want to know before I start my first day. The questions at the top of my list are:
Who am I meeting with when I arrive? What time?
This person might be your new boss, but often it will be a human resources person or a team member you will be working with closely. One time I was scheduled to meet a supervisor my first day. I assumed this person was a man when I read their name but discovered that they were actually a woman when I met them in person! Now I try to avoid that awkward shock by locating their staff picture on the company website ahead of time.
It’s also helpful to find out when your new employer wants you to arrive. Some folks will want you to show up promptly at the beginning of the workday. Others may want to be able to check their email and settle in before you arrive mid-morning.
Where should I go?
To avoid the mistake of being late the first day, it’s important to ask about parking and directions to the building. If it is a big campus with multiple buildings, it can be very confusing to figure out which door to enter. Alternatively, if you plan to take public transportation, it is beneficial to ask how to get to the meeting point from your drop-off location.
What should I bring? What should I wear?
Ideally your employer will send new hire paperwork to you to fill out before you arrive. In addition, you will almost always need several forms of identification, like a driver’s license and Social Security card for tax forms, and a blank check to get direct deposit set up.
In addition to making sure you are dressed professionally and in adherence with any dress code, you may want to consider that your photo may be taken for an ID card the first day. These photos are also often used for staff pictures on a website. This will matter more to some than others, of course. Usually I try to avoid wearing blue because it is often used as the backdrop color for headshots. This is a lesson I learned the hard way when I went to get an ID and just happened to be wearing a jacket that was the exact same blue as the background. I ended up looking like a floating head!
Catch the vision
Part of organizational onboarding is understanding the company’s brand and history.
Take the opportunity during your first week to ask about the history of the company and the vision for where it is going. Hopefully the company’s website has some information that you can read before you arrive. However, nothing beats hearing the story firsthand.
This past December our company had its annual meeting, and staff from all the regional offices came together. The company was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. At the opening event, the founders gave a presentation on the history of the company during which they showed pictures of how it had evolved from its beginnings in a small brick building with no windows to a business working across the Southeast with around 100 employees. It was enlightening. Their passion and pride were infectious, and I felt proud to be a part of that legacy.
It made me wish I had asked about the company’s backstory and vision sooner. Asking such questions is about more than educating yourself. It shows your willingness to engage at a deeper level. It shows you care about the success of the company, not just your success within it.
Learn the language
Part of assimilating into a new office culture is learning new terminology. When I shifted from working in a museum in Honolulu to working for a consultancy in Phoenix, I had a lot of catching up to do. I was still working in my field — archaeology — but in a very different context. I heard people use acronyms and had no idea what they were saying. So I had to learn them, whether they dealt with contract types, client types, procedures, or curation processes.
As with any language, learning takes time—but there are practices you can employ to make it go more quickly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Ask immediately. If you don’t ask immediately you may miss the meaning of the rest of the conversation.
I carried a notepad and pen around with me for the first couple of months in my new position. That way I could jot down notes in the conversation whenever they occurred to me or immediately afterwards so I didn’t forget.
At my desk I transposed those scribbles into a document on my computer. As I entered new information, I organized it into categories. This essentially became an organizational glossary that I could refer to later when needed. Furthermore, writing the information twice (onto my notepad and then into a computer document) reinforced the concepts in my brain.
An unforeseen benefit of this practice was that later when I became a manager, I could print out the glossary for my new hires. It saved them from having to repeat the process and became a useful onboarding tool for other managers.
Be honest about what you don’t know … and ask for what you need
Some companies have formalized organizational and technical training to get new employees up to speed. Other times you need to take charge of your own personal development.
In my current job, I am a team of one. The company created the job for me. I was hired to guide it through a digital transformation of its business and develop the tools it would need. I knew this meant that there would be no company manuals to prepare the way.
After researching software and interviewing staff, I came up with a plan. Then I asked for the tools I needed to be successful. These tools included an offsite consultant to help me troubleshoot technical issues, a subscription to learning tools like Lynda.com and Harvard Business Review, and admission to a technical conference where I could learn from the best.
The point is that you don’t have to pretend to know everything. You can admit that you need more resources to be successful at your job. Make a prioritized list of what you need and pair that with an explanation of how you think each resource will help make you successful at your job. Even if you don’t get everything, your boss will likely be impressed that you took the initiative.
Create some early wins
To feel like you are gaining traction in the new job (both for yourself and your employer), you can intentionally set up early wins. Do this by creating short-term goals. Sixty percent of companies report that they do not set short-term goals for new hires. But by knowing why you were hired, your job description, and your personal goals, you can approach your boss with one-, three-, and six-month goals.
I was hired for my role of digital transformer in August 2017. By the end of September I had presented a plan to the board for the path I wanted to follow. This included short-term goals I expected to reach, such as specific items like “By the end of the year I will develop the initial set of databases for our architectural historians to use on iPads” and “I want to have a 10-minute response time to problems.”
Coming up with early short-term goals isn’t easy. In this case I did a lot of software research and interviews with staff to determine the best path forward, and then I connected that path with the vision of the company. The result was several measurable goals for the year. These goals were realistic and allowed us to achieve some “easy wins” early on.
Some companies have a formal performance review, while others prefer a continual review approach. Your short-term goals may or may not be tied to these company reviews. They could be as simple as “By the end of my first month, I want to be able to independently run X,Y, and Z reports” or “By the sixth month, I want to have developed a set of objectives and KPIs for the department.”
Create opportunities to succeed by communicating your short-term goals to your boss, and then have an early win by reaching them.
Introductions: It’s not about you meeting people, it’s about everyone else meeting you
A new employee is often shuffled around to multiple departments and buildings and introduced to every person with whom he or she may interact. Let’s be honest: No one can remember all those names. But here’s the twist: No one expects you to remember them. Don’t burden yourself with the expectation that you will .
The real point of mass introductions is to show existing employees the new person—“Hey everyone! This is so-and-so.” It’s not about you meeting people, it’s about everyone else meeting you.
That’s a change in perception. I may not remember anyone’s name, but I want them to have a positive first encounter with me. I’m simply talking about being confident, standing up straight, shaking hands firmly, and smiling. If the moment allows, I like to ask people how long they have been with the company, their role, and what projects they are working on.
The goal is to be friendly, confident, and interested in the other person. This isn’t the time to be wordy or intrusive. If someone is clearly busy, the best way to respect him or her is to come back at another time.
If people have a positive first impression of you, you start with an advantage.
Get a buddy
Usually, on the first day of a new job I begin the morning by meeting and chatting with my new boss. But after a period of introductions and orientation the boss drops me off in my new office to start acclimating. Inevitably I eventually have questions, even if they’re just “Where’s the restroom?” or “How do I set up my voicemail?”
If there isn’t a clear hiring manager whom I can speak with, I try to find an office coworker to be a “buddy.” This isn’t an official thing. It’s just being mindful to locate a friendly person the first day. I have found that the best way to do this is to pay attention when I am being introduced to coworkers in my team or near my office. Then I make a mental note of the particularly friendly folks.
Later, when a question comes up, I will go to that person and say, “Hi! Sorry to interrupt your work, but would you mind answering a question for me?” After getting the answer, I thank him or her and follow up with, “Since I am just getting on my feet here, would it be okay if I came to you with other questions as they come up? I would really appreciate being pointed in the right direction.”
Telling the person that you just want to be “pointed in the right direction” takes the responsibility of knowing all the answers off of him or her. If he or she doesn’t know the answer, he or she can refer you to someone else who can help.
One of the best ways to feel connected to your coworkers is by bonding during relaxed social time. The easiest way to do that during the workday is to grab coffee or lunch together. I find the best time to get together is during the first week on the job, ideally the first day. However, if you miss this window, don’t sweat it. Just try to reach out as early as possible.
After I’ve identified a friendly “buddy” or several team members, I ask if they want to get lunch. It’s hard for people to say no to the new person! Usually someone is interested and available. Waiting to be included is a much longer road to bonding than being the person to initiate.
I also try to make the first lunch spot a casual place, like a pizza or burger restaurant. For some reason it makes people more relaxed, and it’s easier to have normal conversations.
Of course, there is no perfect formula for building relationships with your coworkers. Social onboarding is complex. Depending on your role in the company (Are you support staff? Are you initiating sweeping changes?) you may be received differently. My role in digital transformation means that I am creating culture change within the company, which can be painful for some people. That’s okay. I don’t force people to like me. I choose to be friendly, open, and engaging. After all, I’m only responsible for myself. But those qualities tend to soften people and build bridges, which goes a long way toward forming social connections.
Being Proactive Is Empowering
The more I lean into these practices, the more quickly I feel empowered to do my new job. It’s amazing how much confidence the act of being proactive gives me! That confidence translates to productivity.
All of these practices will reinforce the positive ways others see you as well. By engaging in them you demonstrate that you are invested in your work, not just someone who shows up. In the past, my managers have described me as “independent,” “a self-starter,” “motivated,” and someone with “a love for life.” I think all of these come down to being proactive in the workplace.
The best reason to be proactive is that you will benefit from it and feel more confident in your first few weeks on the job. The more you take initiative, engage in a friendly way, ask for what you need, and care about the success of the company, the more likely you will ultimately be to do better work and feel better about doing it.